Last month many of us celebrated 420 in billows of smoke to celebrate our high holiday, but for many others April 20 is a day of mourning. Nineteen years ago, two teenage boys at Columbine High School planned the largest mass school shooting Americans had ever seen. Twelve students and one teacher were killed, and many more would have died if the explosive devices they constructed were not so poorly made. The deadly massacre ended with both shooters taking their own lives.
After the shooters were identified, the gravity of their plan was revealed. Personal journals documented their in-depth planning and hopes of emulating and outdoing the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. Because this was the first school shooting of its kind people desperately grasped for answers as to why it happened, and the media fed into every last assumption. The media even ignorantly used pop culture icons of the time like Marilyn Manson and violence in video games as scapegoats for the violent actions of these young men.
But hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and the depiction of the shooters being part of the “Trench Coat Mafia”—Marilyn Manson-worshipping goths—turned out to be entirely false. Although there is still some debate about whether violence in video games leads to real life violence, studies have shown there is relatively no correlation between the two. There is also the narrative that these “boys” had simply had enough of being bullied and “snapped.” This dangerous idea has created a whole subculture of kids who saw the media attention and fame the two Columbine shooters received, and now idolize them. The media coverage gave them celebrity status. Now, much like Beatlemania, we have Columbiners—young fans of the Columbine killers who share photos, journal entries from the killers that they found online, videos, anything they can find— and swoon over. Three Columbiners planned a mass shooting at the Halifax Shopping Centre which was intended to end with them taking their own lives, just as the Columbine massacre ended.
At this point, the fact that the Columbine shooters were not outcasts won’t change popular opinion; that’s what the media outlets originally ran with, so that’s what people still choose to believe. According to Dave Cullen and his in-depth book, Columbine, the shooters had plenty of friends, did okay in school and were not bullied; those factors were all speculation that turned into “news.” The media frenzy and subsequent focus on victimizing (and memorializing) the shooters on every news station has proven deadly.
A study on the media and mass shootings discovered that when news coverage is inundated with reports of a mass murder, it creates a “contagion,” meaning within a thirteen day period after the shooting the likelihood of another shooting rises about twenty to thirty percent. This is incredibly frightening, and should raise many red flags of caution to news publications around the world. That said, the idea that shootings are “contagious” seems to transfer all responsibility from the perpetrator to the media, which is absolutely asinine.Within these same studies, they also found that “state prevalence of firearm ownership is significantly associated with the state incidence of mass killings with firearms, school shootings, and mass shootings.”
Since the Columbine massacre, Gun Control has been a heated topic that has become more and more polarized as they years have passed, and with each passing year the incidents of mass shootings have increased and become more lethal. Columbine is not even in the top 10 deadliest shootings in modern history any longer. It sits at number twelve—for now. For Millennials, mass shootings have become so common that reports of these horrors are less and less surprising, and Gen Z doesn’t know an America without them. They’ve grown up in a country where it has always been a problem.
Deadliest Mass Shooting in Modern American History
The deadliest mass shooting in modern American history happened just last year in Las Vegas, with 58 people killed at a country music festival. The year before that, a man opened fire into Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killing 49 people. The shootings have only become deadlier as time has gone by, and have occurred in some of the most sacred of places. The Sandy Hook Elementary shooter killed twenty children ages 6-7 and six adults, landing at number four in the deadliest U.S. shootings in modern history. Parents dropped their babies off at school—what should be a safe learning space—and never saw them alive again. The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, lands at number five, with twenty-five people shot dead (including a pregnant woman) in their place of worship.
The list goes on. All of these shootings have one thing in common: guns. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution allows us the right to keep and bear arms. The founding fathers put this into place so that each American would be allowed the right to protect themselves and those they love, and as a potential defense against the state. What the founding fathers didn’t predict was the gross abuse and perversion of that amendment.
The supreme court ruled that although American citizens have the right to bear arms, that right is “not unlimited” and does not prohibit regulation. Gun control and regulations are not meant to keep law-abiding, mentally capable adults from purchasing firearms; regulations are meant to keep the growing problem of mass shootings from getting any worse. And no, putting a firearm in the hands of every American (including teachers) is not going to protect everyone, either. It takes skill, practice and an understanding of the firearm to be a safe gun owner.
Regulation would mean that those with a criminal history of violence or documented mental health problems would be unable to buy firearms. According to The New York Times, nine of the last nineteen mass shootings were carried out by gunmen who had criminal histories or documented mental health problems. That is almost half of the most recent mass shootings. A New York Times analysis of mass shootings showed that domestic violence may be an indicator of future gun violence after their findings showed perpetrators often have records of domestic violence or abuse of women.
Everytown for Gun Safety found that over half of mass shootings involve “the killing of a current or former partner or family member,” and a HuffPost analysis of the Everytown for Gun Safety data showed the majority of the victims are women and children. It also found that “an estimated fifty women a month are shot to death in the US by former or current partners.” That means that at least one woman a day is shot to death by a partner or ex. The statistics show a clear pattern. If those with a violent criminal history—like the man who committed the Pulse nightclub shooting, who killed 49 people and beat his ex-wife repeatedly—were denied access to guns, the potential for mass shootings driven by these men could possibly decrease.
The Role of Mental Illness
There’s also the role of mental illness in mass shootings. The Columbine killers were thought to have been mentally unstable; Dave Cullen, who wrote Columbine,describes them as “The Depressive and The Psychopath” in an article in Slate. This was a conclusion Cullen did not come to on his own. The findings of the FBI and their teams of psychiatrists and psychologists are what brought Cullen to this understanding of the shooters. Peer-reviewed research by Eric Silver examined the relationship between mental disorders and violence and found that people with major mental health disorders have a higher probability of committing violent acts. According to Mass Murder in the United States: A History by Grant Duwe, over half of the mass shootings that occurred from 1900 to 2017 were committed by those who had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder and/or were reported to have shown signs of serious mental illness.
Much like with gun violence, America’s mental health needs attention. Once again, the statistics are there and show a clear pattern. Regard for the mental health of our fellow Americans could potentially prevent the escalation of these growing mass shootings by restricting access to lethal firearms from those with a history of mental health issues and getting them the help that they need. Understandably, some people are afraid of addressing the link between mass shootings and mental illness for fear of furthering any stigmas surrounding mental illness—which is already so difficult for many people to talk about, for fear of judgement and further alienation.
Although there is evidence that mental illness has been a factor in the epidemic of mass shootings, the vast majority of people with a mental illness are not violent. According to Dr. Jeffrey Swanson at the Duke University School of Medicine, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences and one of the leading researchers on mental health and violence, “Even if we had a perfect mental health care system, that is not going to solve our gun violence problem. If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about 4 percent.”
But the problem lies deeper than mental illness—it’s who we depict as mentally ill. When we take a look at the high-profile mass shootings that make the news, they are not the ones that happen in the low-income, economically struggling parts of America. The ones that make the news and are depicted as “mass shootings” carried out by a “mentally ill outsider” are the ones committed in suburban neighborhoods by white shooters. The New York Times analyzed data from two databases collected from news reports and citizen contributors, then verified the data with law enforcement agencies. They found that in the 358 armed encounters last year, “nearly three-fourths of victims and suspected assailants whose race could be identified were black.”
Almost seventy five percent of those who commit and are affected by mass shootings are black. James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston told The New York Times, “Clearly, if it’s black-on-black, we don’t get the same attention because most people don’t identify with that. Most Americans are white. People think, ‘That’s not my world. That’s not going to happen to me.’” Former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter agrees, stating, “The general view is it’s one bad black guy who has shot another bad black guy . . . And so, one less person to worry about.”
The same could be said for the way the media (and now the current POTUS) has blamed video games when a white male is guilty of a mass shooting. Clinical psychologist Christopher Ferguson, a leading expert on video game violence and mass killings at Texas A&M International University, has called it exactly what it is: racist. “I know it’s a little controversial to say but there’s a certain type of racism in place with these killings,” Ferguson told Forbes. “When shootings happen in an inner city in minority-populated schools, video games are never brought up. But when these things happen in white majority schools and in the suburbs, people start to freak out and video games are inevitably blamed. I think that there’s a certain element of racism or ignorance here.” Ferguson went on to affirm that, “Scientifically, the idea that video game violence, movie, or television violence contributes to mass homicides is pretty much a debunked idea that has no real basis to it.”
There is no one answer to this problem. It’s multifaceted, and should be treated as such. An open and honest conversation about mental health on a national level needs to happen. People still assume that mental health is like the monster in your closet—you can’t see it, so you can just wish it or will it away. But that’s far from the truth. Without treatment, it will only get worse. Compared to other Western countries, the treatment gap for serious mental illness in the U.S. is much higher, and that gap only gets larger for males, who commit ninety-nine percent of all mass shootings.
But mental health is only a small part of the solution. As stated above, it is a factor, but a small one. Blaming video games and pop culture is not rooted in fact or science; it is rooted in white privilege and racism. Humanizing a killer only happens when the shooter is white, and according to the statistics, although some of these shooters may very well have been suffering from a mental illness, not all of them were. Identifying these biases is important to finding a solution.
In addition to the way the media depicts shooters of different races, the media also plays a role in the progression and ripple effects of these mass shootings. This is why, throughout this entire article, not a single one of the shooters’ names has been mentioned; these men do not deserve the time it takes to type out their names. The focus needs to be less about the shooter, less about pointing fingers at one problem or another. It should be about creating real change in every way possible so that these shootings stop in every neighborhood, not just suburbia. Each of these factors play a role in the growth of mass shootings, but the largest factor remains the abundance of firearms Americans have access to with little to no regulation. Opponents of gun regulations say that a determined shooter will find a gun illegally if they truly intend on using a gun to kill someone; scientific evidence suggests otherwise. Several studies show that policies like background checks, mental illness restrictions, firearm registry and permit-to-purchase requirements save lives.
Only eight states require people to register their firearms. Only 18 states require background checks and only 22 have deadly force laws. Registry alone would make an impact. If a person was to buy and register their firearm legally, the chances of them selling a gun that may be used unlawfully diminishes greatly, especially if there are penalties for not reporting “stolen” guns. It’s been proven time and time again, country to country, state to state that stronger gun laws result in fewer deaths from shootings.
Since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people, the conversation about gun control and regulation has begun to build momentum again and young people are joining in on the conversation. This resulted in students, teachers and faculty members all across America participating in a National School Walkout, which students at Columbine High School participated in this year.
Nineteen years later, not much has changed. The Columbine High School memorial plaque says it best: “It brought the nation to its knees, but now that we have gotten back up how have things changed; what have we learned?” We’ve studied the facts, heard the statistics and acknowledged the biases. The question now is, are we ready to act, create change and save lives?
*For this article we defined a mass shooting as one in which four or more victims are killed with a gun within a 24-hour period at a public location because the statistics that we cited used that standard. Though there has been some debate about what “should” count.